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Suit Challenges Inadequate PD Funding

By Marc Lee

Many lawsuits have been filed throughout this country addressing the problems in indigent defense programs. Although many of these lawsuits have been successful in showing the inadequacies in the indigent defense programs, for the most part they have been unsuccessful in obtaining relief. On May 12, 1994, prisoners at Arizona State Prison in Florence filed a class-action lawsuit which has taken a different approach to the problem (Ernst v. Symington, U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, Dist. Ct. No. CIV 94-0953-PHX-SMM (MM)). The defendants in the lawsuit are Fife Symington, Governor of Arizona, the Attorney General of Arizona, and the Boards of Supervisors for Pima and Maricopa Counties.

Instead of attacking excessive caseloads and workloads of indigent defense attorneys or the quality of indigent representation, as the other lawsuits have done, Ernst is attacking only the lack of funding and resources to indigent defense programs. This lack of funding and resources is so serious in Arizona that the indigent defense programs have no choice but to provide constitutionally inadequate representation to the vast majority of defendants. Few defendants are chosen to have their cases properly investigated, researched or prepared. This has resulted in many indigent defendants losing trials which could have been won; accepting plea bargains for outrageously long periods of incarceration (40 to 70 year plea bargains for nonviolent crimes are not unheard of); and completely inadequate appeals. To compound this problem, indigent defense programs also lack the funding and resources to properly investigate claims of ineffective assistance of counsel for post-conviction relief proceedings. Not only are indigent defendants receiving inadequate representation at trial, but they are also unable to prove it after trial.

Ernst has no pretensions about knowing what amount of funding would assure effective representation. The lawsuit is based on the budgets of Pima and Maricopa Counties which reveal that county prosecutors receive 2 to 3 times the amount of funding that indigent defense programs receive. This relationship is boosted to 6 to 7 times the amount of funding and resources when the services of law enforcement agencies, which the county prosecutors receive at no cost, are added. The lawsuit also does not suggest that the funds and resources of indigent defense programs should be increased to the excessive amount given to the county prosecutors -- only that the funds and resources of both sides of the justice system be equal or close. If the county prosecutors continue to receive the excessive amounts of funding and resources, as they do now, the prosecutors will continue to defeat the indigent defendant simply by outspending them.

"While criminal trial is not a game in which the participants are expected to enter the ring with a near match of skill, neither is it a sacrifice of unarmed prisoners to gladiators." U.S. v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 104 S.Ct 2039, 80 L.Ed.2d 567. Ernst does not ask the court to look at the skill of indigent defense attorneys, or the skill of the county prosecutors, all it asks is that the indigent defendants in Arizona do not continue to be the "unarmed prisoners" as described above.

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Related legal case

Ernst v. Symington